U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (12/7/2009)

1. The Top 15 Most Important, Post-WWII Anglophone Books of Philosophy, According To Google: Brian Leiter, of Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog fame, compiled a list derived from Google search results of the Top 15 (plus Top 10 runners-up) most important philosophy books of the last 50 years. To paraphrase a comment made by Mr. Leiter on his own post, I’m not sure these books tell us anything about philosophy, but they do say something about the accessibility and potential usefulness of philosophy to the general public. Several works and authors on the list familiar historians and many readers here include: Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; John Rawls, A Theory of Justice; Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge; W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object; and maybe Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. And this Wikipedia post will help you sort through some of the other players.

No Isaiah Berlin? Aside: Jurgen Habermas apparently floats on the edges of the analytic/anglophone tradition.

2. Evaluating Participation Grades: Bonnie M. Miller, in the latest issue of the AHA’s Perspectives on History, asks whether and how we should grade class participation. The article is a useful revisitation of the philosophies, both pro and con, behind accounting for participation. Most of my conversations with colleagues on this topic have been informal. As such, it’s nice to see a write-up. Of course the article also unintentionally underscores just how imperfect evaluation is on the whole. I like Miller’s mid-term self-evaluation of participation idea.

3. A Cornel West Takedown—For His Own Good?: In a recent InsideHigherEd article written for potpourri posts like this one, Scott McLemee takes Cornel West to task for being less than McLemee thinks he can, or should, be. Others have commented on McLemee’s story and West’s book, but I want to take the conversation in another direction. Since I’m neither an enemy nor a fan of West—I’m a neutral, I have no personal dog in McLemee’s fight with West’s accounting of himself. But, I find the practice of thinking about public intellectuals—their place, role, and expectations of them—of interest. To recount the principles, the object of McLemee’s ire is West’s own autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. McLemee never uses this phrase, but you get the feeling that he sees Brother West as a This Is Spinal Tap version of West’s autobiography. Let me tease you with two brief passages from McLemee’s piece:

There is seldom much detail and never any depth [to West’s reflections]. West makes a few references to academic mentors. He notes his intense interest in various philosophers or authors. Yet there is never a sustained effort to grapple with them as influences on his life and thinking. He mentions his own scholarly books on Marxism and pragmatism (for some odd reason forgetting that he also published one on African-American theology) but does not describe the process of thinking and writing that went into them.

…If sketchy in other regards, Brother West is never anything but expansive on how Cornel West feels about Cornel West. He is deeply committed to his committed-ness, and passionately passionate about being full of passion. Various works of art, literature, music, and philosophy remind West of himself. He finds Augustinian humility to be deeply meaningful. This is mentioned in one sentence. His taste for three-piece suits is full of subtle implications that require a couple of substantial paragraphs to elucidate.

To me, McLemee seems to be saying that once you have entered the public arena, you ~owe~ that same public—at some point—an authentic, sincere, applied remembrance of your life. I think I agree, but I’m not sure. And of course West still has some time to provide that narrative. But will he?

4. Political Correctness and Identity Politics in the Academy, Soberly Assessed: Stanley Fish considers political correctness as an object of study as presented in new books from both “liberal” and “conservative” angles. Fish finds the “conservative” study, which consists of a compilation of essays published by the American Enterprise Institute, to be intriguing—even convincing. He relays that the following from that study:

The call for intellectual diversity is, as the volume’s authors acknowledge, less philosophical than strategic; it is designed to embarrass liberal academics who are dedicated to what Peter Wood calls the “diversity regime” in academia. …The answer [to the problem] is that it would be better if all sides acknowledged that “diversity” is a word that has lost whatever usefulness it may have had and has become an umbrella rationale for importing political criteria into the process of academic decision-making. We should be done with it.

Fish concludes: No one…will agree with everything these two books say, but reading them together, and in counterpoint, is a genuinely educational experience. Rather than merely cheering for your side and booing at the other, you actually learn something.

5. A New Penn Press Series: The Arts and Intellectual Life in Modern America: This new series, edited by Casey Nelson Blake, consists thus far of the following hardbacks:
—Iain Anderson’s This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture;
—Casey Nelson Blake’s The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State;
—Cándida Smith’s The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century;
—Steven Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects?;
—April F. Masten’s Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York; and
—A. Joan Saab’s For the Millions: American Art and Culture Between the Wars.

6. Teaching Early Modern Philosophy: Dana McCourt over at The Edge of the American West, claiming an unintended provocation by provoked by Crooked Timber’s John Holbo, discusses alternative teaching strategies for the Early Modern period of philosophy. I love Dana’s suggestion of using female philosophers, at the very least, as critics of the Big Guys who dominate this period: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Here’s the book she recommends to that end. The issue of how to approach this period is no small consideration for someone attempting to teach a “History of Philosophy in America” course that honestly deals with the colonial period.

7. The Armageddon Imperative: This CFP will be of interest to those who work on the Cold War in the late twentieth century. I see a great many intellectual history intersections in the invited topics subsection.

8. We’ve Tried NeoLiberalism Before in the Modern West: Tony Judt explains here how it didn’t work. I wonder what future historian will write the book titled: “The Myth and Reality of Government Inefficiency: How The New Right Won the Late Twentieth-Century Culture Wars in America, 1980 – __2008? 2012?*__ – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. To me, McLemee seems to be saying that once you have entered the public arena, you ~owe~ that same public—at some point—an authentic, sincere, applied remembrance of your life. I think I agree, but I’m not sure. And of course West still has some time to provide that narrative. But will he?

    I dunno, Tim. That’s not how I read the McLemee review. To the extent that McLemee thinks West owes us anything, it’s a book about Josiah Royce. And McLemee’s criticisms of Brother West seem to be about what it is (an ungodly mess, to judge from both his review and excerpts I’ve read elsewhere), not what it isn’t.

    And though I admit that I haven’t thought about it much, my gut feeling is that nobody owes anybody “an authentic, sincere, applied remembrance of [one’s] life.” Not that it’s not nice to receive such a text from someone in the public arena. But I don’t think the public even owns the image, let alone the authentic person (to the extent one wants to talk of such a thing).

  2. On the Cornel West/Scott McLemee controversy. I have read the Memoir, and it is exasperating and enticing, in equal doses. Much like Cornel West. But McLemee goes too far in demanding that West conform to his own (and Larry Summer’s) expectations. Will we be better off if West shut himself in his study to write his book on Hume, or the one on Royce, or any of the other projects that he has long promised? Or is there a certain delight in hearing him give his rap, enthuse listeners at various conferences with his sometimes glib, sometimes deep commentaries? Not my call. I prefer to see Cornel West as a force of nature, an American original – perhaps I will start a movement, “Leave the Brother Alone, Let Cornel West be Cornel West!”

  3. Ben: I dunno either. I’m just speculating a bit on what we expect of our public intellectuals—no matter McLemee’s precise gripe (which seem many, but I excerpted the one relevant to my point in the first of the excerpts above). But I disagree on your “what it isn’t” point. The autobio is not as intellectual as Scott wants it to be, whether in evaluation of West’s self or some other self.

    George: This dovetails with my exchange with Ben, but I really do think that McLemee, in terms of autobiography and personality, wanted more of West’s imperatives of the Super Ego than of his Id.

  4. Well, let’s just say that the esteemed Professor West’s id has found some rather impressive objects for its attention! Tim, yes, it is not an intellectual autobiography although it is sprinkled with some of that.

  5. “McLemee seems to be saying that once you have entered the public arena, you ~owe~ that same public—at some point—an authentic, sincere, applied remembrance of your life.”

    It is absolutely not the case that I think this. West said he would be writing an intellectual autobiography. The thing he has actually published (and that I actually paid cash money for, which perhaps sharpens my irritation) is not one, and came about through much the same process as the one by which Sarah Palin “wrote” her “book.”

    Being annoyed at its quality is not the same thing as saying that ever public figure needs to write an excellent memoir.

  6. Scott,

    I guess the question is, then, whether West said ~again~ in Brother West itself (its intro or preface) that it would be the promised intellectual bio, or just in The Cornel West Reader? If he said it in the present work and didn’t deliver, well, that stinks. He should be faulted.

    If, however, he only said it ten years ago and changed his mind on how he wanted his autobio structured, then that’s his prerogative. Do we really have a right to criticize the latter—unless we expect something different? And he did deliver somewhat on his promise to link his autobio to musical forms, right? So he only half met his decade-old promise.

    But perhaps the problem is that Brother West is neither entertaining nor intellectual enough? It’s stuck in Limbo. He’s not trying to entertain or inform intellectuals—thus it falls flat to you. But George did call it enticing. The question then is this: Who is his intended audience? Thoughtful musicians? People who follow public intellectuals?

    Of course I understand, Scott, the regret at the cash outlay. There’s nothing worse than paying hard-earned cash and being neither entertained or informed.

    – Tim

  7. “Enticing” is a very nice way to say that his life story sounds interesting and that it would have made for a good book if he’d tried. I acknowledged that in my review, actually.

    The ideal (if not the intended) reader of the book is thirteen years old. In the hands of the right thirteen year-old, it would be an important book. On reflection THAT is something I should have said.

  8. Scott: Then the internet’s flamers would’ve accused you of worse things than racism. They would’ve reviled you for implying West was a pedophile (on account of his unfulfilled wish for a partner). …I digress too much. – TL

  9. Well, I don’t think he is exactly using the book as a personal ad.

    A thirteen year old might think that passage was very romantic. The logical conclusion then would be that West is a vampire.

  10. God, that whole threat over at Crooked Timber has taken a seriously ugly turn. And the Edward Champion slandering of McLemee just made it worse!

    That said, I still stand by the cringe-worthyness of the original “cap popping” line in McLemee’s review. But now I wish I had never even been involved — even pseudonymously — in what turned out to be a crazy comment thread.

    I’m always fascinated by the academy/journalism divide, and I think I was so disappointed in McLemee’s review because it seemingly sought to uphold that distinction, despite the fact that West was clearly aiming for a popular audience (even of 13-year-olds).

    To top it off, the main thrust of Champion’s horrid little counter-review was that McLemee should be discounted for not having the proper academic credentials. Uggh!

    Why are there so many gatekeepers even among people standing outside the gates?

    P.S. Sorry to all USIH bloggers for bringing up the Trotskyite/Trotskist thing over at CT. I didn’t mean to drag this fine blog into such a nasty affair.


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